I’ve been meaning to write something about this intriguing exhibition that is being held at the NYPL (42nd St & 5th Ave) until Sunday,
March 23 September 7, 2014. It is titled, The ABC of It: Why Children’s Books Matter.
I find myself overwhelmed even trying to begin to break this down. The exhibition was equal parts history, art, and wonder. The creeping path began with the conception of books aimed at children, which were usually designed to promote the religious morals of the society. Some of these morphed into educational texts on how to sew and mend (basically, disciplines and household chores for the lower class).
The library did an excellent job of choosing books that were not only American but also from many different regions of the world. Some stunning examples were the Soviet era books written for the incorporated countries with majority Islamic populations. And because this is New York City, a nice chunk was dedicated to works from the Bank Street College writers who emphasized the reality of the city and less often focused on fantasy and fairy tale (think Goodnight Moon). Even a book by photographer Edward Steichen, which was commissioned by his daughter, Mary, was included–the title, of course, being The First Picture Book.
It was wonderful edging my way through the twists and turns of the exhibitions. There were new treasures to excite my imagination and old favorites that gave me a comforting and familiar feeling. I delighted in 5th grade memories of The Phantom Tollbooth and the uncountable times I’ve delved into Wonderland. I was also intrigued by the pulp adventure novels with their original artwork framed on the wall.
The entire exhibition did bring up an unhappy opinion I have of children’s (and now that term young adult) books. In decades past, there was certainly a lot of schlock aimed at kids–remember those pulp adventure novels I mentioned before–and Nancy Drew, my favorite girl sleuth, was a product of many writers authoring under the name Carolyn Keene. Yet, I get a cold Dickensian chill as I type this. It is true that more people–children included–are reading these days, thanks to e-readers and, in the case of kids, Harry Potter. However, in my opinion, there has been a decline in quality. There are many imprints of well-known, international houses that deal exclusively with young adult. Most of the books are turned out in very short periods of time (2 months!) by ghostwriters. Sometimes the writer offers up their own idea/manuscript and other times, the entire novel is already plotted and banged out like a prefab log cabin. Certain “points” have to be checked making the entire process an algorithm and, in many cases, a regurgitation of a previously successful book (this is why we have so many vampires).
Besides this being a wondrous exhibition filled with marvel, it did make me lament the fact that many books aimed at the younger reading audience lack the imagination and craftsmanship of books past. There are still novels being written today for children that are of high quality that are alluring and fascinating but I fear they are being eclipsed by these factory written volumes (usually with the intention of getting a film deal).
EDIT: For those who can’t make it, the New York Times has a photo slideshow of parts of the exhibition. See it here.